Burt Rutan, the designer of the Spaceship One and Two, has been a hero, perhaps the hero, of my life. A passionate, innovative aircraft designer; unbelievably aggressive in trying new things, pushing boundaries that nobody even knew existed.
His first plane design, the VariViggen was an astonishingly different design than anything out there before; designed while a student at Cal Poly and built in his garage. And it flew beautifully. I saw that plane, his later VariEze and LongEz flying in formation at the Oshkosh Fly-in in 1980.
He set up a shop at the Mojave Airport, called Rutan Aircraft Factory (RAF). In the middle of nowhere, nothing there but space to build new planes, and he built many. Each one more exotic than the last. His Boomerang, his last personal plane, is so far from the standard boring airplane designs that most people wouldn't believe it could fly; but it does fly, efficiently, safely, and every apparently crazy design idea has absolutely solid engineering and aerodynamic backing.
I took my 14-year-old daughter to see the first flight into space of Spaceship One in 2004. Burt's long-time co-worker and chief test pilot, Mike Melville, flew it that day. As it was climbing to space, it started to spin, pretty fast (about 60 rpm.) Melville said that he was scared for a second, but then decided to wait until he was "in the safety of space" to arrest the spin. A test pilot, flying an experimental winged spaceship, who has never flown to space before, in a plane spinning at Mach 3, decides in a second to wait until he was in the safety of space. And of course, it worked out; he was able to use the reaction control system to arrest the spin; took out some candy to float around the cockpit, took some photos out the windows, and enjoyed the five minutes of weightlessness. Just one of a thousand, maybe ten thousand adventures in Burt's long career.
I've wondered my whole life about how Burt responds when people die flying planes of his design. In 1983, while at Oshkosh, a VariEze crashed approaching the airport (it looks as if the linkage between the control stick and the elevator failed.) Burt, up on stage, described his trip out to the crash site. As professional as he could be, but I felt it must have been tearing him up inside. He gave the gift of flight to thousands of enthusiasts, but those great planes took the lives of some of those people. How do you reconcile that? I'm not sure I could have, or can today.
Burt got out of the homebuilt airplane business after being sued too many times by the survivors of crashes. In the last suit, the guy built the plane incredibly wrong, instead of using the 10 layers of fiberglass to attack the fins to the wing, he just glued them on. Astonishingly, it held up for years, but finally broke during a low-high-speed pass. Burt won all the lawsuits, but it was clear that he would spend years defending himself instead of doing what he loved, so he closed the shop.
Burt retired a few years ago, and lives up in Idaho instead of Mojave. Sadly, for all the innovation he created over the years, there were no commercial successes. This looked like it might be the one, but it's never going to happen.
This is not the first death in the program; sadly. While testing a previous engine about 5 years ago, the nitrous oxide detonated, killing three of his engineers. I mourned for them, and for the pilot today. My joy over my whole adult life in seeing the achievements of Rutan and his team are about evenly matched by the heartache I feel for them today. They haven't announced the name of the pilot who died today, but may he rest in peace.